Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Poor Folk (1846) is the debut novel of the now-famous Fyodor Dostoevsky. The novel comprises of a series of letters between Barbara Dobroselova and Makar Dievushkin. They each live in small rooms in boarding houses across the street, such that Makar can see Barbara's window from his own. Makar supports the seamstress, Barbara, who was born to affluent parents but is now bereft and impoverished. Makar feels an extreme paternal affection for Barbara, who feels similarly well disposed toward him. Though Barbara appreciates Makar's kindness, she protests the gifts and money that he sends to her. The novel follows their alternating fortunes and reveals Barbara's unique history.
As a young girl, Barbara was tutored by a man named Pokrovski. In a letter to Makar, she explains to him:
But once, when we had driven [Pokrovski] nearly to tears, I heard him say to himself under his breath, “What cruel children!” and instantly I repented—I began to feel sad and ashamed and sorry for him. I reddened to my ears, and begged him, almost with tears, not to mind us, nor to take offence at our stupid jests. Nevertheless, without finishing the lesson, he closed his book, and departed to his own room. All that day I felt torn with remorse. To think that we two children had forced him, the poor, the unhappy one, to remember his hard lot! And at night I could not sleep for grief and regret. Remorse is said to bring relief to the soul, but it is not so. How far my grief was internally connected with my conceit I do not know, but at least I did not wish him to think me a baby, seeing that I had now reached the age of fifteen years. Therefore, from that day onwards I began to torture my imagination with devising a thousand schemes which should compel Pokrovski to alter his opinion of me
This quote reveals how Barbara taunts Pokrovski but intimates that she will grow to love him. Pokrovski, as shown herein, is an extremely sensitive intellectual, which ends up attracting Barbara. Barbara ends up buying Pokrovski a set of Pushkin works with money hard earned, but she allows Pokrovski's father to present it to him as though the gift were from him alone.
Makar, while much older and not a romantic prospect for Barbara, has a similar penchant for intellectualism. Makar writes to her:
What a splendid thing is literature, Barbara—what a splendid thing! This I learnt before I had known Rataziaev even for three days. It strengthens and instructs the heart of man . . . . No matter what there be in the world, you will find it all written down in Rataziaev’s works. And so well written down, too! Literature is a sort of picture—a sort of picture or mirror. It connotes at once passion, expression, fine criticism, good learning, and a document. Yes, I have learned this from Rataziaev himself. I can assure you, Barbara, that if only you could be sitting among us, and listening to the talk (while, with the rest of us, you smoked a pipe), and were to hear those present begin to argue and dispute concerning different matters, you would feel of as little account among them as I do; for I myself figure there only as a blockhead, and feel ashamed, since it takes me a whole evening to think of a single word to interpolate—and even then the word will not come!
Though he is a government clerk, Makar has an abiding interest in literature that makes him particularly fond of Rataziaev,...
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though the latter occasionally taunts him. Makar exchanges literature with Barbara, who sends him an old manuscript in which she recounts her personal history.
Barbara takes an interest in Makar that that is almost a filial duty. Because Makar is characteristically self-denying, he walks around with threadbare clothing. Barbara takes pains to procure for him new clothing, explaining the following in her letter:
I am hurrying my utmost to get my work finished in time. What do you suppose is the reason for this? It is because an opportunity has occurred for you to make a splendid purchase. Thedora tells me that a retired civil servant of her acquaintance has a uniform to sell—one cut to regulation pattern and in good repair, as well as likely to go very cheap. Now, DO not tell me that you have not got the money, for I know from your own lips that you HAVE. Use that money, I pray you, and do not hoard it. See what terrible garments you walk about in! They are shameful—they are patched all over! In fact, you have nothing new whatever. That this is so, I know for certain, and I care not WHAT you tell me about it. So listen to me for once, and buy this uniform. Do it for MY sake. Do it to show that you really love me.
Ultimately, Barbara becomes engaged to a wealthy landowning man whom she knew from childhood. He takes her to the country, and Makar makes a show of pretending to convince her otherwise but plans to move into her room when she leaves.